James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake Gets Turned into an Interactive Web Film, the Medium It Was Destined For

Two rad­i­cal mod­ernists, James Joyce and Sergei Eisen­stein, once met in Paris in 1929 and, “depend­ing on who you read,” writes Dan McGinn, “are pur­port­ed to have dis­cussed a film ver­sion of ‘Ulysses’ and how Karl Marx’s ‘Das Kap­i­tal’ could be depict­ed onscreen.” For many years, an adap­ta­tion of Marx’s dense polit­i­cal-eco­nom­ic cri­tique seemed about as plau­si­ble as a film ver­sion of Joyce’s famous­ly dense nov­el, which takes place on a sin­gle day, June 16th—forever after known as Blooms­day.

A great admir­er of Joyce’s cin­e­mat­ic imag­i­na­tion, Eisen­stein once remarked that “for­mal­ly Joyce went as far as lit­er­a­ture could go.” Giv­en the con­ven­tion­al­ly nar­ra­tive, real­ist route film even­tu­al­ly trav­eled, Ulysses, with its recur­sive digres­sions and hyper­al­lu­sive inte­ri­or­i­ty, seemed unfilmable until Joseph Strick’s admirable effort in 1967.

Just as Eisen­stein admired Joyce’s lit­er­ary exper­i­men­ta­tion, Joyce was a lover of Eisen­stein’s exper­i­ments in film. He found­ed Ireland’s first movie house, the Vol­ta, in 1909, and though the ven­ture flopped a year lat­er, Joyce’s invest­ment in the aes­thet­ics of film sur­vived. Colm McAu­li­ffe observes that Ulysses “deployed a whole range of tech­niques such as mon­tage and rapid scene dis­solves which are more com­mon­ly asso­ci­at­ed with the cin­e­ma.” Eisen­stein “raved about the way Joyce had adopt­ed a sci­en­tif­ic approach to the sto­ry of a day in the life of one man,” writes McGinn, “putting almost every aspect of that day under the micro­scope.” After Joyce, Eisen­stein said, “the next leap is to film.”

But if Ulysses went as far as the nov­el could go, Finnegans Wake explod­ed the form alto­geth­er, dis­solv­ing the bound­aries between prose and poet­ry, sub­ject and object, his­to­ry and myth. Ulysses employed the tech­niques of film; Finnegans Wake imag­ined tech­nol­o­gy which did not even exist. It is a novel—if we are to call it such—written for the 21st cen­tu­ry, and per­haps the only way it can be adapt­ed in oth­er media is through the internet’s non­lin­ear, labyrinthine struc­tures; the online project First We Feel Then We Fall does just that, cre­at­ing a mul­ti­me­dia adap­ta­tion of Finnegans Wake that “trans­fers” the nov­el “to audio­vi­su­al lan­guage,” and demon­strates the nov­el as—in the words of The Guardian’s Bil­ly Mills—“the book the web was invent­ed for.”

Con­ceived and exe­cut­ed by Pol­ish artist Jakub Wróblews­ki and schol­ar Katarzy­na Bazarnik, the project’s “main goal,” its press release announces, “is to show com­plex­i­ty of nar­ra­tion, lan­guage and mean­ings includ­ed in this mas­ter­piece. Based on an inter­dis­ci­pli­nary analy­sis, the work trans­lates the text into the cin­e­mat­ic form.” As you can see in the short clips here, it’s a form much like we might imag­ine Eisen­stein adopt­ing to film Finnegans Wake, had Eisen­stein had access to web tech­nol­o­gy. Cen­tral to the project is “an inter­ac­tive video app… designed in order to enhance an expe­ri­ence of Joycean stream of con­scious­ness.”

Select­ed pas­sages and with­in them spe­cif­ic words, phras­es or sen­tences serve as the basis for video sequences. Shots illus­trat­ing a pas­sage are divid­ed into four sep­a­rate chan­nels. The view­ers have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to choose in real time which chan­nel they would like to watch…. This sys­tem is sup­posed to reflect the tenets of Joyce’s fic­tion: that the book can be read in dif­fer­ent ways, while the read­ers can solve its ver­bal puz­zles, yield to the melo­di­ous rhythm or look for hid­den mean­ings.

The project’s cre­ators base their adap­ta­tion on the novel’s con­cep­tu­al prin­ci­ples: “Based on a cycli­cal vision of his­to­ry, the book is a tex­tu­al mer­ry-go-round, too: it begins mid sen­tence and ends with anoth­er one bro­ken in the mid­dle, which finds it con­tin­u­a­tion on the first page: the same anew.” And although they don’t say so explic­it­ly, they also employ Eisen­stein’s the­o­ret­i­cal prin­ci­ples of mon­tage: “Pri­mo: pho­to-frag­ments of nature are record­ed; secun­do: these frag­ments are com­bined in var­i­ous ways.”

In addi­tion to a jum­ble of abstract images, the project’s short videos—as you can see in these excerpts—incorporate a wide range of voic­es, accents, and musi­cal and son­ic accom­pa­ni­ment. The only way to expe­ri­ence the full effect of First We Feel Then We Fall is to vis­it the site’s play­er and spend some time cycling through its dizzy­ing col­lec­tion of images and voic­es read­ing from the text, using the up and down arrows on your key­board to move from video to video. As a key to under­stand­ing Joyce’s work and their own adap­ta­tion, the project’s artists chose the Joycean words “Mean­der­tale” and “Meanderthalltale,”—“two of innu­mer­able puns mak­ing up the tex­tu­al labyrinth of Finnegans Wake,” neol­o­gisms that nudge us to read the book “as a ‘tall tale” wan­der­ing way­ward­ly, loop­ing back­ward and flash­ing for­ward, into the pre-his­toric past, and the ori­gins of the human species.”

If Ulysses seemed unfilmable, Finnegans Wake tru­ly is—at least in the con­ven­tion­al nar­ra­tive lan­guage film has set­tled into since Eisenstein’s time. But in using the abstract vocab­u­lary of avant-garde film and the post-mod­ern tech­nol­o­gy of the inter­net, First We Feel Then We Fall has cre­at­ed an adap­ta­tion that seems wor­thy of the book’s inno­va­tions, and that authen­ti­cal­ly trans­lates its ver­tig­i­nous­ly play­ful poet­ic strange­ness to the screen. Enter First We Feel Then We Fall here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake Read Unabridged & Set to Music By 17 Dif­fer­ent Artists

Sci­en­tists Dis­cov­er That James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake Has an Amaz­ing­ly Math­e­mat­i­cal “Mul­ti­frac­tal” Struc­ture

James Joyce Reads From Ulysses and Finnegans Wake In His Only Two Record­ings (1924/1929)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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